The Day We Met Our AMIGA!!

Today is July 23, 2017.

32 years ago today, a computer was released that was unlike anything else released before it. It was the true wave of the future; a multimedia powerhouse that literally blew the competition out of the water. The Macintosh may have started a revolution in 1984, but in 1985, this computer would be the one that took everything the Macintosh did and just simply, putting it mildly, fucking RUN with it.

That computer is the Amiga, from Commodore, as its marketing material and packaging described it.

Nowadays, we call it the Amiga 1000.

The Amiga 1000, the first model of many.

What was it that made this computer so special? Why would it be that Commodore would be so befuddled by their own computer that they would hardly even know how to describe or market it to people? What was it about the Amiga that put it so far above other computers at the time? For that, we have to go back a few years to the 1970s and Atari.

Atari had hired an engineer, Jay Miner, to help design the chipset of their upcoming video game console, the Atari Video Computer System (better known as the Atari VCS or 2600). Miner had a special talent for squeezing entire breadboards worth of components into a single chip; his biggest contribution to the VCS was its TIA chip, which controlled video and sound output, as well as controller input, on the console. Miner also developed the support chips for Atari’s 8-bit computer line; namely the CTIA, ANTIC, and POKEY chips.

Jay Miner, chip designer extraordinaire

Miner wanted to create a next generation system based around the Motorola 68000 CPU, a chip that would become famous later as the main CPU of the original Macintosh, the Atari ST computer, the Sega Genesis, and the Amiga, among other computers and consoles. Atari was not interested, and Miner left Atari. He joined another company in 1982, Hi-Toro, where he was given control of designing hardware for what would’ve been a next generation console system with advanced graphics and sound capability. Work continued throughout 1982 and 1983, with the company renaming itself as Amiga Corporation in late 1982. A prototype system was put together, and at the 1984 Consumer Electronics Show (CES) show, the world got a glimpse into the future of computing, when the Boing Ball demo was shown, running on real hardware, for the first time ever.

However, with the Video Game Crash of 1983 still hanging over people’s heads, people were not very interested in yet another video game console at this point. On top of this, Atari was also in severe hurt from the crash, causing Warner Communications to sell the computer division of Atari to Jack Tramiel, who had resigned from his previous company, Commodore, in January 1984. Amiga had originally planned to license their chipset to Atari, who would’ve marketed the resulting computer as one of their own. However, Commodore decided to step in, buy Amiga outright, and pay off Atari’s fees instead. Work continued, and in 1985, Commodore began to announce “The Amiga, from Commodore” to the public.

On July 23, 1985, the Amiga was formally launched, with a release party and star-studded gala held at the Vivian Beaumont Theatre in Lincoln Park, New York City. To demonstrate the artistic capabilities of the Amiga at the event were artist Andy Warhol and Blondie frontwoman Debbie Harry.

At the time, the Amiga’s specs were well above anything seen in the market at the time. It had 4-channel stereo sound, could display 32 colors out of 4,096 on screen at a time (even more with special graphics modes), had a GUI similar to that of the Macintosh, and true multitasking capabilities. By contrast, an IBM computer or clone may have had only 4-color graphics, no built-in GUI, and 1-channel, 1-bit sound.

The Amiga Workbench, as the GUI was called. This is Workbench 1.3.

Although the Amiga 1000 seemed to be in demand, mismanaged marketing from Commodore nearly killed this almighty computer. Its powerful multimedia capabilities befuddled businesses, who dismissed it as not being useful for spreadsheets or office work. It was priced unusually; it was cheaper than a Mac but more expensive than some PCs. Software companies were wondering if it was worth supporting; some threw their weight behind the Amiga; some less so. After floundering and nearly losing the Xmas 1985 season, Commodore decided to refocus their efforts, and in 1987 released two new Amiga models: the Amiga 2000 and the famous Amiga 500.

The Amiga 500, most famous as a gaming Amiga.

The high-end Amiga 2000, an expandable, professional Amiga.

The Amiga 500 was a rousing success, thanks to its lower price point (US$699/£499 at release) and marketing scheme; the Amiga 500 was marketed similarly to Commodore’s older VIC-20 and Commodore 64 computers, by focusing on mass retail outlets instead of exclusively computer stores. As a result of its success, game developers flocked to the Amiga, releasing thousands upon thousands of titles for the system. Even though Atari had released their own 16-bit computer at the time, the Atari ST, it didn’t gain the same foothold in the market as the Amiga, and oftentimes fierce rivalry between users of either system broke out. While the Amiga 500 was especially popular in Europe, it couldn’t gain the same ground in the United States. Although 6 million Amiga 500s were sold worldwide, only around 700,000 of those were in the States. The Amiga was semi-popular in Japan, although information about the region is (to me, at least) a little vague. However, it is known that Junichi Masuda of Game Freak used an Amiga to compose the soundtracks to several Game Freak games, including the early Pokémon games.

Commodore discontinued the Amiga 500 in 1992, introducing a new low-end model, the Amiga 600, in March of that year. Although meant to be an improved Amiga 500 model with better graphics and hard drive capacity at a lower cost, it ended up being more expensive and initially derided by both Amiga users and senior Commodore staff. In October 1992, Commodore introduced the Amiga 1200 to the world, alongside another high-end model: the Amiga 4000. With more advanced video hardware and a newer OS, the 1200 and 4000 were poised to be true killer machines.

The Amiga 1200 (which I covet!)

Workbench 3.1, featured in the newer Amigas

In 1993, Commodore attempted one last shot at getting the Amiga into the home market, with the Amiga CD32, a 32-bit game console based off the hardware of the Amiga 1200.

The Amiga CD32, an unfortunate case of “too little, too late”

Although the CD32 was sold in Europe and did well there, Commodore was unable to sell the system in the US due to patent payment issues. Models that were sold in the US were imported from Canada or the UK, but thanks to this mess, Commodore was unable to keep themselves in the black, and finally declared themselves bankrupt on April 29, 1994. The CD32, Amiga 1200, and Amiga 4000 were their last official Amiga computers.

After Commodore’s demise, several companies looked to get the rights to the Amiga line. A German computer company, Escom, got Amiga patent rights in 1995, but went bankrupt as well in 1996. Gateway Computers gained the rights after, but did nothing with the Amiga line. Today, the Amiga trademarks are held by a company, Amiga Inc., in the US, while software rights are held by Italian computer company Cloanto, who releases a software package called Amiga Forever.

Even though Commodore no longer exists, the Amiga is far from dead. In fact, the Amiga community are so dedicated and passionate about their computer of choice that software continues to be written for the Amiga line to this day. Newer hardware, now based on PowerPC chips instead of the older m68k CPUs of yore, are available to purchase. Sites like Amibay, Aminet, offer advice, software, hardware, and socializing sites to rub elbows with fellow Amiga users and lovers. The Amiga demoscene still exists to this day, and Amiga demos are still as mindblowing today as they were back in the late 80s and early 90s. AmigaOS’ legacy still carries on through OSes like MorphOS and AROS, which are Amiga-like OSes that function similarly but are also modernized enough to function in the 21st century. The added benefits of both is that MorphOS and AROS can run on easily found hardware; MorphOS runs on most PowerPC-based Mac models, and AROS can run on standard x86 hardware. Both also offer compatibility with system-friendly AmigaOS programs!

My MorphOS desktop, running on a Mac Mini G4

And now what does the Amiga all have to do with myself? I decided to save that for last.

Even though I had gone through computers as a kid (starting with a Commodore VIC-20, then moving onto the original IBM PC and through various PC compatible machines over the years), when I first saw an Amiga 1000 in a store, I fell in love with it. Granted, I also fell in love with the original Macintosh when I first saw it as a precocious 5 year old in 1984, but there was something about the Amiga that just felt… special. I seriously coveted an Amiga for a very long time, but, since we already had a computer in the household, a second computer would’ve been out of the question. But it didn’t stop me. I’d read the Amiga magazines available on the shelves of bookstores (Amiga Format and Amiga Power were my jams!). I’d play with Amiga demo units in computer shops if they had one set up. I’d keep my eyes
on garage sales, yard sales, flea markets, and computer conventions to see if someone was letting one go cheap. As the
years went on, I never gave up my search for an Amiga.

Luckily, having access to the internet, IRC, BBSes, and other ways of communicating with the Amiga community meant I was always able to keep up with the scene and what was going on.

Flash forward to now. I now have an Amiga 500 in my collection, and am looking to get myself an Amiga 1200 whenever an inexpensive one springs up on the aftermarket, or if any of my online friends can help me net one cheap enough. I have a Mac Mini G4 which I bought simply to run MorphOS, and to at least get that sensation of running something Amiga-like daily. I have joined several Amiga groups on Twitter and elsewhere. Yes, I grew up with an IBM computer and thus DOS, and I love DOS games to pieces. But the Amiga is my forbidden love; my sordid affair. Even though I don’t have the same wave of nostalgia that long-time Amiga users do, I still have the nostalgia of those magazines, tantalizing me with the world’s most advanced computers at the time, tempting me to get one by any means possible. As an adult with decent enough income, I can now entertain that childhood dream with the computer that, even though its parent company and no one really got it, really did blow the world away in the 1980s.

Get with everyone. Get BOINGED. Amiga FOREVER!


Posted by Robert Menes

One of the hosts. Talks super fast. Drinks too much coffee. Loves DOS games, movies, vinyls, photography, beer, Amigas, and doing shit on computers. Sometimes hacker. Makes money doing shit with computers.